December 5, 2001

Roots and Shoots Begins Campaign To Promote Cultural Understanding

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To foster a greater understanding and tolerance of the Muslim culture in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, Roots and Shoots, a student-run humanitarian and environmental group at Cornell, yesterday kicked off a year-long project at Ithaca’s Enfield Elementary School.

Roots and Shoots is a world-wide organization created in 1991 by Dr. Jane Goodall and The Jane Goodall Institute to “foster respect and compassion for all living things, to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs and to inspire each individual to take action to make the world a better place for animals, the environment and the community,” according to the organization’s website.

The Cornell branch of the organization is currently focused on their main project to teach school students in the Ithaca area about cultural diversity, particularly pertaining to the Muslim culture and religion.

Yesterday, after working with teachers to plan the execution of the program, the Ithaca chapter invited three Cornell students to speak to fourth and fifth grade classes at Enfield Elementary.

The three speakers, Omer Bajwa grad, Wajih Tariq Effendi ’04 and Nida Afzah Chaudhary ’04 are all of Pakistani descent but have grown up in America.

The speakers brought traditional Arab food, prayer rugs and Arabic nametags for the students. They provided a brief overview of the Five Pillars of Islam, Ramadan and stereotypes Americans have about Muslims. They also took time to answer questions the students had prepared.

Bajwa felt that the program was a huge success.

“We just tried to get [the students] used to the idea that Muslims are normal people that do normal things like go to school and work,” he said.

Though Bajwa said he had experience speaking about racial issues to high school and college audiences, it was his first time dealing with elementary school children.

“They had lots of good, honest questions, especially about Ramadan and the self-control needed to go without eating for so long,” he said.

Bajwa added that he “[had] new-found respect for elementary teachers and what they have to accomplish” and that he would “definitely be interested in doing it again.”

Ayolah said she was also pleased with the attentiveness of the children and noted that “kids are interesting to talk to because they say what’s on their minds.”

She was glad that some of the students’ misconceptions were dispelled.

“They seemed to think that Muslim people were very restricted in their behavior and there was a lot that they weren’t allowed to do. I think the kids were surprised that this wasn’t true.”

Diana Anderson, a fourth grade teacher at Enfield, said she was impressed by the presentation of the group.

“All the teachers were absolutely thrilled to have the students come and it was obvious that they really prepared. Everyone said it went very well.”

She pointed out how appropriate it was that Bajwa’s teaching technique to arrive in traditional Muslim attire, including robes and a turban, while the other speakers wore typical American clothing. She also noted that her students seemed very interested and responsive, providing a lot of questions and cooperation.

Anderson noted that the teachers at Enfield had been working with their students ahead of time so that they could get the most out of the presentation.

“All educators have to make sure their students understand that you can’t treat people on how they look,” she said. Overall, she emphasized that it was an “important experience” for the students.

The idea for the program came from a discussion between Goodall and two Cornell students, Rotem Ayalon ’02 and Jessica Brown ’03, about the problem of racial tension from Sept. 11 at the Roots and Shoots National Summit in Washington on Sept. 14.

According to Ayalon, Roots and Shoots plans to continue their work at Enfield, as well as expand to other area elementary schools starting next semester. The culmination of their Enfield program will feature a local show next May, where artwork depicting students’ dreams and fears for the world will be displayed.

Archived article by Diane Plavecski